MAY 5TH, 2016: ASCENSION OF THE CHRIST
In the first book, Theophilus,
I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught
until the day he was taken up,
after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit
to the apostles whom he had chosen.
He presented himself alive to them
by many proofs after he had suffered,
appearing to them during forty days
and speaking about the kingdom of God.
While meeting with them,
he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem,
but to wait for “the promise of the Father
about which you have heard me speak;
for John baptized with water,
but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
When they had gathered together they asked him,
“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons
that the Father has established by his own authority.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
throughout Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth.”
When he had said this, as they were looking on,
he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.
While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going,
suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.
They said, “Men of Galilee,
why are you standing there looking at the sky?
This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven
will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”
Brothers and sisters:
May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory,
give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation
resulting in knowledge of him.
May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,
that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call,
what are the riches of glory
in his inheritance among the holy ones,
and what is the surpassing greatness of his power
for us who believe,
in accord with the exercise of his great might:
which he worked in Christ,
raising him from the dead
and seating him at his right hand in the heavens,
far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion,
and every name that is named
not only in this age but also in the one to come.
And he put all things beneath his feet
and gave him as head over all things to the church,
which is his body,
the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer
and rise from the dead on the third day
and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins,
would be preached in his name
to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.
And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you;
but stay in the city
until you are clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany,
raised his hands, and blessed them.
As he blessed them he parted from them
and was taken up to heaven.
They did him homage
and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy,
and they were continually in the temple praising God.
Those who don’t expect Jesus’ Parousia anytime soon really can’t appreciate the mindset of the community for whom Luke originally composed his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. The two evangelists who preceded Luke – Mark and Matthew – presumed Jesus’ Second Coming was still just around the corner, though they wrote more than 40 years after his death and resurrection. As the years went by such a conviction became less and less tenable. How long would Jesus’ second and third generation followers hold on to that belief? As it turned out, not for very long.
By the mid-80s, Luke came to the conclusion this deeply longed for event wouldn’t happen in his or his readers’ lifetime. That seems to be why, among other things, he tries to convince his community that we’re in this “Christianity thing” for the long haul. Jesus’ Second Coming isn’t just around the corner. His treatment of Jesus’ ascension logically becomes part of this new theology.
That’s the key to appreciating today’s three readings. In some sense, because scholars regard the ascension as more theological than historical, we must understand what our sacred authors are trying to convey by writing about it. They’re not as much interested in zeroing in on a calendar date as they are in letting us know about the ongoing implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
This is certainly clear in our Ephesians pericope. The Pauline disciple responsible for the letter theologically regards the risen Jesus as “far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion . . . . God put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church . . . .” The best way to express this belief is simply to state a theological ascension metaphor: “(God) seated him at his right hand in the heavens.”
But it’s also important to note that most of our Christian authors, like John the evangelist, regard any ascension of Jesus as a temporary phenomenon. Remember how in chapter 20, John’s Jesus talks with Mary Magdalene about “ascending to the Father,” leaves her presence, then returns later that evening. It’s like telling your spouse, “I’m going over to talk with the neighbors.” The presupposition is, “I’ll be back later,” as was the case with John’s Jesus.
This seems also how Luke looked at the event in today’s gospel pericope. “As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven.” Then, as we hear in our first reading – the initial chapter of Luke’s second volume – Jesus is back again with his followers for at least 40 more days. Only in the Acts of the Apostles do we have a definite departure of Jesus into heaven.
Luke seems to do this, among other reasons, because of his conviction that Christians are going to live in this long haul depending more and more on the help of the Holy Spirit in their lives. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,” the departing Jesus tells them.
I don’t think it’s accidental that after Jesus’ ascension in Acts, no one is ever “completely” converted to the faith by having a vision of Jesus – not even Paul who, after Jesus appears to him on the Damascus road, still must go to Ananias to complete the process of conversion. Now people are only converted to the faith by encountering other people of faith. Jesus doesn’t seem to be around anymore to do the job. If we don’t do it, it won’t happen. But Luke’s also convinced that only the Holy Spirit helps us do it in the way the risen Jesus wants us to do it, especially in the long haul.